Philadelphia is buckling under the weight of the opioid crisis. No big city has as many opioid deaths per capita as this city. About 1,200 Philadelphians died of an drug overdose last year. That was a 30 percent jump over 2016; more are expected in 2018.
The city estimates that 140,000 residents are addicts but only 10 percent of them are in treatment. Officials worry that more people could become addicts because about a third of the city’s adults have been prescribed highly addictive painkillers in the last year, according to the city’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley. Add to that the thousands of addicts from around the region who come to the city to buy drugs and inevitably overdose.
The city didn’t make this mess, and it shouldn’t have to clean it up alone. The cost in human suffering and the millions of tax dollars Philadelphia has spent fighting this epidemic are compelling reasons the city this week rightly joined the growing list of communities suing five drug manufacturers — including Allergan/Actavis; Cephalon and Teva; Endo; Janssen and Johnson & Johnson; and Purdue — for their roles in the crisis. Very significantly, the city is not just seeking monetary damages but also is seeking to stop the companies’ aggressive marketing of drugs.
This lawsuit may seem long overdue, but consider that this crisis knocked communities off their feet and they are only now getting up and fighting the root causes.
For decades, drug companies used misleading pitches — on the drugs’ safety and dosages — to persuade physicians to prescribe painkillers for managing even minor back pain. They downplayed the drugs’ addictive properties. Famously, some cited the well-regarded New England Journal of Medicine as proof that opioids weren’t dangerous. But the magazine only published a letter to the editor decades ago that said there were few hospital inpatient cases of addiction. It wasn’t a full study or article, which would have required real research, fact-checking and perspective. For the record: Opioids are highly addictive. According to a real study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last March, one out of five people prescribed opioids for over 10 days is susceptible to addiction.
This is a deadly problem that starts but is not limited to prescription drugs; when access to those drugs is no longer possible, many turn to street drugs, including heroin.
Communities have put enormous stress on their resources to deal with the consequences. Philadelphia treats roughly 14,000 addicts a year. There aren’t enough ambulances to take dying addicts to hospitals, so Fire Department equipment is used. In just one year, Philadelphia spent $370,000 to administer naloxone, the life-saving opioid antidote, to 10,000 addicts. The cost of fighting drug-related crimes is up to $40 million a year when factoring in costs for the police, the district attorney, public defender, the courts and prisons.
Drug companies have to help pay for the problem they played such a major role in creating. They’re not alone, of course. The doctors who didn’t bother to check out the research and overprescribed these dangerous substances should pay, too. But the victims, their loved ones, and the taxpayers have already paid enough.